Happy 88th Birthday 19th Amendment

Today, August 18th, marks the 88th anniversary of the amendment that ensured women’s right to vote. The struggle that culminated in the ratification of the19th Amendment in 1920 began at Seneca Falls in 1848 more than 70 years before. The Republican Party was the first major party to champion women’s suffrage and its role in that struggle is chronicled here.

Republicans were important in the women’s suffrage movement from the start. Henry Brown Blackwell, husband of suffragist Lucy Stone was a founder of the Republican party and the American Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1878, Suffragists encouraged Republican US Senator AA Sargent from California to introduce a constitutional amendment ensuring women’s right to vote. It took 9 years for the amendment to make it out of committee and was defeated in 1887. It would not come to a vote again until 1914. Democrat-controlled congresses would defeat the amendment 5 times before the election of a Republican congress in 1918 finally allowed passage. 26 of the 36 legislatures that ratified the amendment were Republican-controlled. Other firsts include, the seating of women as delegates as early as 1870 (Massachusetts Republican State Convention), and 1892 (alternates to the Republican National Convention) and the election of the first female Congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin of Montana in 1917.

Although the 19th Amendment was not ratified until 1920, that did not mean that no women in America could vote before that date. The first legal female voter in the USA was Lydia Chapin who voted in town meetings as early as 1756. Women in New Jersey were granted the right to vote in 1776. By the time of ratification women in Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), Arizona and Oregon (1912), Illinois (1913) and Montana and New York (1917) had been granted the right to vote. Despite these early gains, America is often wrongly considered as being relatively late to grant women the right to vote (after New Zealand and Rarotonga in 1893, Australia in 1901 and Finland in 1906).

Though one of the most important events of the 20th Century, the story of women’s right to vote is today, one of the most misunderstood historical topics. As with many ideas controversial in its day, women’s suffrage quickly became orthodoxy and as with so many orthodox ideas, its origins have become obscure and myths have cropped up as we have been granted the luxury of taking this important right for granted.

The election of 1920 was the first presidential election in which women in all 48 states were allowed to vote (Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union in 1959) and contributed to the greatest presidential landslide in US history. Though the main issue of the election was the unpopularity of Wilson, crippled by stroke and rocked by the unpopularity of the League of Nations Treaty; female voters vastly preferred Republican Warren Harding. Harding, known for his good looks and long-standing support for women’s right to vote provided a stark contrast to his opponent, Ohio Governor James Cox and won handily (60.3 to 34.1%).

Some of the staunchest opposition to women’s right to vote surprisingly came from women. One of the most common arguments against enfranchising women came from women who considered voting more of a burden or a responsibility than a right.

Some of the strongest allies of women’s suffrage were men. Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican Theodore Roosevelt were both early supporters of women’s right to vote. Though Roosevelt was undoubtedly a progressive Republican, it is fair to point out that he differed substantively with progressive Democrats of his day on major issues. For example, Roosevelt was for civil rights for all Americans, having been the first president to invite a black man to dine at the White House, Wilson on the other hand instituted a policy of segregation in the District of Columbia. Roosevelt was an early supporter of women’s suffrage whereas Wilson waited until opposition to women’s suffrage became a political liability to switch his position on the issue. Roosevelt was an early and vocal supporter of arming for WWI, whereas Wilson’s dithering led to massive logistical shortfalls that led to American recruits training to fight the Kaiser’s army with wooden sticks instead of guns. Hence, equating the word “progressive” in its turn of the century sense with “liberalism” is not advisable. Historians and political junkies can and will argue forever on the degree of conservatism or “progressivism” that animated Roosevelt’s political career, however I do find it instructive to note that it is not Republicans who have had to reverse their position on race. “Equal justice under law” has always been the policy of the Republican Party.

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